Mark Stansbury

Mark Stansbury, a member of the first Leadership Memphis Class (’79), has worked for more than 60 years as a WDIA radio personality and gospel announcer. He served as assistant to four presidents of the University of Memphis, and is a member of St. Andrew AME Church.

Memphis 51 years later: We are not there yet

By Published: April 03, 2019 4:14 PM CT

In a few days, we will observe the 51st anniversary of one of the darkest days in the history of Memphis. The shocking assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. occurred on the evening of April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, just a day after his inspiring “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple.

Now, let’s fast forward to 2019, as Voices for Justice in the Mid-South plans the Memphis Cares 2 event at Crump Stadium on April 7, to recall the Memphis Cares rally of April 7, 1968. How have things changed over the last half-century? I believe some might even ask: Are we there yet?

My honest response would be: No, we are not there yet. Many things have changed, but many remain the same.

In 1991, former superintendent of Memphis City Schools Dr. Willie Herenton was the first African-American elected mayor of Memphis, defeating the incumbent by only 172 votes. I applauded then-Mayor Richard C. Hackett for not asking for a vote recount. Herenton was followed in office in 2009 by A C Wharton Jr., who was serving as the first African American mayor of Shelby County, elected with 60 percent of the vote. Last year, Herenton announced he is running for re-election to the position he held 17 years, longer than any other Memphis mayor.

Current Mayor Jim Strickland, who has announced he will seek a second term, secured funds to give city sanitation workers who participated in the historic 1968 sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis a tax-free grant of $50,000 each.

Community activist Tami Sawyer, recently elected as a Shelby County commissioner representing District 7, announced that she also is a candidate for mayor. 

Quite a few persons of color have been elected to the Memphis City Council, with nine of them serving as chairperson, most recently councilman Berlin Boyd.

Last year during MLK 50, the observation of the 50th anniversary of King’s death, four sanitation workers who participated in the 1968 strike, were still working for the city.

The day after King was killed, a group of ministers marched from St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral to City Hall to confront then-Mayor Henry Loeb in support of the sanitation workers. Last year, Voices for Justice in the Mid-South (VFJM) sponsored a successful re-creation of that march called “From Cathedral to City Hall.” The group was welcomed at City Hall by Strickland and songs from a choir.

Dr. Mark Matheny, a retired United Methodist minister, and I, retired assistant to the president at the University of Memphis, co-founded VFJM in 2017. “Our ongoing purpose is to help bring justice where there is injustice, in the faith-based spirit of Dr. King,” Matheny said.

On the third day after King’s death, Dr. James M. Lawson Jr., who had invited King to Memphis to support the sanitation workers, and Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, along with businessman John T. Fisher II and others drew between 7,000 and 8,000 Memphians to a prayer service and call to action at Crump Stadium. Several days later, the sanitation workers’ strike was finally settled. In the spirit of that first “Memphis Cares” event, the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) was born several months later.

On Sunday, April 7, a team of citizens spearheaded by VFJM invite everyone to Crump Stadium for a 3 p.m. service much like the first “Memphis Cares.” Lawson, now 90, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1974, will be the principal speaker. Assisting him will be Suzannah Fisher Ragen, daughter of the late John T. Fisher.

Other speakers for “Memphis Cares 2” include Dr. Roz Nichols of Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church, Dr. Marcos Villa of Latino Memphis, Rabbi Katie Bauman of Temple Israel, and 9-year-old elementary school student Reuben Davidson. The event also will feature music and booths for enrolling in voluntary service. 

I am looking forward to “Memphis Cares 2,” and to the much-needed togetherness among a broad community of laity, clergy and people of goodwill. The next chapter of history is about to be written. We are still not there yet!

<strong>Mark Stansbury</strong>

Mark Stansbury


Guest Column Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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